Thursday, November 09, 2006

The King and I

It’s been a hell of a week, as it has taken me back some 30 years, to when I was a teenager enthralled with the words scribbled by a novelist from Maine, who painted dark and scary pictures in my head. Those pictures still linger and haunt me. They are images torn from nightmares, from a fevered imagination; yet they’re instilled with a deep understanding of the human condition. I’d say that this writer is one of the reasons why the horror-fiction genre blossomed in the 1970 and ’80’s. And even though that genre has since imploded, taking down with it lesser-known talents, the work of this wordsmith from Maine can still be found on bookshelves all over the world. There on all those spines, you will find his majestic surname: King.

Yes, I mean Stephen King, who after all these years, I finally had the opportunity to meet in London just this week. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself here …

As a teenager, I was an avid reader, consuming the works of Geoffrey Household, Alistair MacLean, David Morrell, Ian Fleming, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and many, many others. But in 1977, my history teacher told me he’d read this amazing book called The Shining, by Stephen King. The following Saturday I went into town, but as I was poor at the time, I couldn’t afford the hardcover, and my local library already had several people on a waiting list to borrow the book. So I went back to the bookstore and bought a paperback copy of Salem’s Lot, instead. At home, I read the first three chapters--and was amazed. I then pleaded with my mother to loan me £10 (which she did). I ran into town again (hoping to reach the bookstore before it closed) and spent the money on a paperback edition of Carrie and that hardcover version of The Shining. I spent the weekend in “hog heaven,” reading King’s first three books. That Saturday was the start of my lifelong passion for the work of this gentle writer from Maine.

Since then I have continued to follow King’s career. His non-fiction work Danse Macabre (1981) introduced me to many writers and reinvigorated my passion for books, especially all things gothic. Thanks to King, I discovered writers such as Richard Matheson, and I still re-read I Am Legend (1954) annually as a treat. It is as if King gives back to the writing world what he takes out from “The Pool,” an idea he would later exploit in his most recent novel, Lisey’s Story.

My King collection of books has grown over the years, and includes--thanks to the recommendation of horror writer Ramsey Campbell--first editions of the novels King wrote as “Richard Bachman.” I’ve also picked up Stuart David Schiff’s Whispers chapbook, which first published outtakes from King’s apocalyptic novel, The Stand, and hunted down short stories published in Twilight Zone Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (in which the Dark Tower series made its debut), a copy of the Starmont Reader’s Guide to King, Marvel Comics’ adaptation of “The Lawnmower Man,” and ... well, I could go on and on about this rare stuff. Such collecting was considerably harder in those pre-Internet days, but it also might have been more fun. And it was far less costly; with each passing year, King’s popularity increases, and so do prices for his older works.

King’s family roots are Scots-Irish, and he’s always had an affinity for Europe. He even lived in England for a while, where he penned “Crouch End,” a short story (first published in 1980) that’s named after a district in north London. (I should add that the section of Lisey’s Story that places Scott and Lisey Landon in Germany is actually loosely based on the period during which the King family resided in England.) Yet until this week, the last time King had visited the UK was almost a decade ago, when he was promoting Bag of Bones (1998) and delivered a lecture at the Royal Albert Hall. I had a ticket for that address, but missed it due to a work crisis.

Ever since, it’s been a burning desire of mine to meet the author and thank him for giving me so much reading pleasure, as well as introducing me--through his reviews and book jacket blurbs--to many great works, among them Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, Michael Marshall’s The Straw Men, and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.

Finally, I got that chance, thanks in large part to Peter Robinson, author of the splendid Inspector Alan Banks mysteries (including this year’s Piece of My Heart).

Here’s how it happened.

Earlier this year, Robinson, a Brit who now lives in Canada, switched UK publishers, dumping Macmillan in favor of Hodder & Stoughton--a huge coup for Hodder, as Robinson’s police procedurals have become big-sellers. At the London launch party for Piece of My Heart, I got talking with Kerry Hood, the head of PR at Hodder, about Stephen King, who’s also published by Hodder. She smiled, as she knows me to be a huge King fan, and told me to leave Wednesday, November 8, free. She wouldn’t tell me anything more, but I knew something big was in the works, as I knew that Lisey’s Story--said to be King’s most personal work--was due out around that time.

Over the many months that followed, I often wondered about November 8, that day I’d blocked out in my diary. But I told only two people that “something big” was likely up: J. Kingston Pierce from January Magazine and The Rap Sheet; and Mike Stotter, my British editor at Shots. Both were amused at my excitement, though they didn’t know any better than I what was in store for that date.

During the Crime Writers’ Association’s Historical Dagger awards presentation in October, I again ran into Kerry Hood, who pulled me aside to tell me how Hodder & Stoughton was bringing Stephen King to the UK for the release of Lisey’s Story--and that in addition to his speaking at a London event on November 7, a special party was being thrown in his honor, with invitations going to reviewers, agents, and members of the press. King wanted to thanks us all for the support we’d given him and his publisher over the years. Kerry said she would soon provide me with more details.

Not long afterwards, I received a limited-edition “proof” of Lisey’s Story with a letter telling me that the publisher would appreciate not seeing that proof on eBay. Though as a big King collector, I was unlikely to let the book out of sweaty hands. I went on to review the novel, which I found to be part literary thriller, part horror story, and fully a love story, if a bit strange all around.

Finally, the party invitations began arriving--not only clunking down on my doorstep, but reaching Stotter, Crime Time editor Barry Forshaw, and novelist Mark Timlin. We called each other and arranged to meet for a few beers right before the party on the 8th.

Stephen King and his wife, fellow author Tabitha King, arrived in Britain last weekend and spent some time in London together, before Tabitha went back to the States on Monday. King was left behind to promote his new work. And Hodder & Stoughton had the 59-year-old working hard at that task, appearing on morning TV shows and signing books in Oxford Street. The Times of London published a special supplement about King’s work (most of which is available online), while bookstores around the country stocked stacks of Lisey’s Story in readiness for purchasing crowds.

On Tuesday the 7th, I ventured over to London’s Battersea Park Events arena, where King would be appearing. It was dark and eerie walking through the park, and the auditorium was poorly signposted. When I arrived at 5:30 p.m., a heaving queue was already forming. I could hear accents from all over, which confirmed the fact of King’s widespread and international appeal. Soon joining me were my colleagues Stotter and, also from Shots, Chris High, along with novelist Colin Campbell (Ballad of the One Legged Man).We had a drink inside, and then found our seats. Hodder & Stoughton had kindly positioned us in the second row, so we had an excellent view. There had to be close to 3,000 people in attendance, and the atmosphere (complete with giant video screens) was more like that of a rock concert than a literary event.

King was terrific, being interviewed onstage by the director of the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. The first part of the evening offered a lively debate about politics and life, followed by a session during which King answered questions that had been e-mailed via the Times Web site. (Both parts are available as a downloadable podcast. It’s fascinating listening, especially King’s reading from Lisey’s Story.)

After standing in the longest queue I’ve ever seen (at least 2,000 people strong), I had King sign my book, and then thanked him and went home.

But the following afternoon, I took off from work and headed back into downtown London. The party for King was to be held just off the Strand, opposite the Royal Courts of Justice. After a quick drink at a pub with Stotter, Timlin, and Forshaw, along with horror author Peter Crowther and horror editor Stephen Jones, we all headed over to Middle Temple Hall for the celebration. After grabbing up another libation, I had a chance to talk with King’s UK editor, Phillipa Pride, and mingle amongst editors from Hodder & Stoughton and authors as varied as Meg Gardiner, Margaret Murphy, and Martina Cole. I was in the middle of chatting with Peter Robinson and his wife, Sheila, when Stephen King suddenly joined us. Turns out that King is a fan of the Banks books. Peter introduced us, and King was gracious enough to let me have a photograph taken of he and I together (see above). Then he asked me what I thought of Lisey’s Story.

I have to admit that I was shaking like a leaf. My heart pounded and my brain kept telling me that “You’re talking to Stephen King. You’re talking to STEPHEN KING!” We conversed for about five minutes, which felt like the longest five minutes of my adult life. And then, as I trembled, he leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Relax,” he said, “I don’t bite.” I couldn’t help but laugh, and then as I shook his hand, I told him that his work had been very important to me over the years, and recounted that Saturday three decades ago when I discovered his fiction. It was what I’d wanted to do for so long.

King had to move on, chat up other guests, and finally take the stage with Alabama 3, a British group (probably best known for their song “Woke Up This Morning,” which is the theme for The Sopranos) that had been booked for this affair. After a brief introduction by the managing director of Hodder & Stoughton, King thanked everyone in attendance and concluded by saying, “I’m not good at these things, as all I do is write in a room and tell stories.” Then he added how pleased he was with the results of the U.S. midterm elections. He received a standing ovation from the gathering.

With the event over, Timlin and I strolled outside to get some air. And as we were talking, Kerry Hood and Phillipa Pride exited in company with King, for whom a car had already been summoned. Kerry introduced Stephen King to Mark Timlin, and then turned to introduce me, but the wordsmith from Maine smiled and said, “I’ve met Ali, and he’s a funny guy.” Nice touch. And one that I’ll remember for the rest of my days. For a moment--maybe just one--I was no longer some middle-aged dude. Instead, I was that fanboy of 29 years back, who ran into town clutching two £5 notes borrowed from his mother, ready to buy his first-ever hardcover book.

(Want to see photographs from the special party in honor of Stephen King? Click here for all the pictures, or here to see a slide show.)

READ MORE:Rocking with the King,” by Maxim Jakubowski (The Guardian).


Dr Ian Hocking said...

That's a lovely post, Ali. I was also at the Battersea Park gig (yeah, and the signage left something to be desired) and blogged about it here:

Sophie Littlefield said...

great story! made me feel like I was there...there aren't very many authors who could render me speechless but, naturally, he's one.

Whenever I do workshops I end up selling lots more copies of ON WRITING for the shop than I do of my own book :)